Thursday, 10 July 2014

Pamplona - how I ended up in Spain, Part 1

I'm going to skip forward a couple of days and then return to what happened in the interim.

As some of you by now already know (even though I was trying to keep it on the lowdown until I signed the dotted line), I did in fact get offered the job at Imperial College - the one I had been obsessing about and interviewed for the day after I arrived as a broken human being. I got it. Like, seriously. Something has to go wrong, this is going much too smoothly. Maybe it's good karma after the stress of almost not being let into the country?

The position starts July 15 and so my next question was - what can I do in the meantime? Let's do something crazy! Pamplona was the word on everybody's lips and so I got the very very last spot with the Topdeck Pronto 6 day tour (with much thanks to BritBound and MC for squeezing me in).

This was on Monday, 30 June. The tour was leaving Friday, 4 July. Nothing really sunk in until I was on the bus. I'm going to Spain? Wha? Running of the Bulls? I'll do the thought process later.

Thursday night, some of the BritBounders who were travelling met together at a Spanish restaurant to get to know one another and have a couple of familiar faces. Here I met Emera and Ashley, Guy, Megan and Leigh, and Kimberley. We bid each other farewell until the morrow and went home to finish packing.

Friday morning, wheely suitcase and backpack loaded, I made my way to the Walkie. On the way, I received a message from MC asking if I was there yet (which sent me into a panic as I thought I was running late). Turned out another BritBounder went to the wrong location, but all was well in the end. At the Walkie, I excitedly sat with those I had met the night before, Guy and Kimberley (who kindly lent me a European power adaptor) and we tried to guess what the next few days were going to be like.  We boarded the coach, I sat with Kim - and we began the first leg to Dover, about a 2 hour drive from the Walkie. (There was slight drama here with the ferry, and where we were meant to board, and missing people, but I won't go into those details).

The next 20 hours passed...rather slowly. Not in a blur, not swiftly with excitement, but rather painfully and slowly. First stop: Dover, where we saw the White Cliffs. We boarded the ferry (P&O - a bit of information for you, Mum!) and embarked towards France. I was a little bit crazy as I was about to land on French soil. 2 ill-advised ciders later (and also a broken seal..) and we jumped off the ferry and into our Topdeck coach in France. In France! Kim enjoyed my excitement as I pointed out particularly French things - look! French cows! Over there! French trees. Oh! A french building! I tried not to overdo this to the point of her stabbing me in the face with frustration; I think I succeeded.

We stopped every 4 hours for a stretch, toilet stop and some food. I had some of the most hideous chicken nuggets I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing in a service station in France. The customer service was roughly the same. I popped some half sleeping tablets and while not knocked out completely, this did afford me a couple of hours here and there and the luxury of dozing. The coach ride gave us the chance to start getting to know the other people on the tour (about 60 of us on our particular tour, although there were over 400 Topdeckers staying in the camp site on other variations of the tour). As we had been sitting together, our tent numbers also became close together - so these became the people I was to socialise with for the next 6 days.

Arriving at the campsite, we made our way to our tents and dumped our stuff. The talk around me was to go to the bar and then for a swim. I almost cried - I only wanted to sleep. I sat on the airmattress for a while and then slowly forced myself to put my bathers on - encouraging a second wind of enthusiasm and I was alright again. At the bar, I introduced myself to Kat, Dave, Dan and Sherrie and we had a breakfast sangria or 2 (or 3? I can't remember). It was 10.10am, and this was to set the tone for the next few days in Spain. We wandered down to the lake on the campsite (with more sangria - 1L for 2 euros) and went for a dip - today was 32C and we all got a bit sunburnt. Spanish sunburn! Which will hopefully turn into a Spanish tan and not peel, Spanishly.

After a dip and too much sangria, some of us jumped on the bus and had a tour of Pamplona, as well as tips and tricks for staying alive and un-gored if any of us were to do the bull run. It was a hot day and combination sangria, lack of sleep, lack of food and dehydration ended up with me having a borderline migraine and the first to lose the bet on who would chunder first on the trip. That's right. I'm gonna own that.

Fell into bed and slept like a log.

Sunday morning arrived and I felt wonderful but was surrounded by some seedy heads. Sunday was the opening ceremony for the San Fermin festival and so we all donned our white pants, white t-shirt (most of us chose to wear the Topdeck one in case we lost each other in the crowd) and red waist sash. We were not to put our red neckerchief on until the cannon had sounded at midday. We arrived into town just after 10am and, as a group roughly 14 strong, we made our way exactly where we were recommended not to go - into the town square. Along the way, we purchased our first bottle of sangria for the day (1.5L for 3 euros) which was then carefully poured into our sangria sacks for optimal drinking and sangria squirting. In the town square, things were already beginning to get crazy. Drunk Spaniards with their home made sangria in giant 5L or more bottles. Buckets full of sangria and large cups, ready to be thrown at all and everyone. Anyone who ended up on someone else's shoulders was instantly doused with sangria. Anyone who was even in the square simply ended up covered in sangria. We were squirting it at each other and throwing it, and getting caught in cross-fires from other groups. It was crazy and mental and insane. Someone decided it would be a good idea to begin throwing empty (or mostly empty) bottles of sangria into someone's balcony (the town square was lined with tall housing blocks). This resulted in hundreds and hundreds of bottles flying through the air - until the balcony was filled. They then started on the adjoining balcony. I could see the residents inside - they were laughing. They weren't mad. This was all part of the crazy.

A couple of giant inflatable balls joined the fray. More sangria throwing. More people. Squishy squishy. Until it was almost midday and the crowd had become the single biggest mosh-pit I've ever experienced in my life. I was separated from the group and surrounded by about five 6'+ enormous Spaniards who were holding up their red neckerchiefs and chanting San Fermin! San Fermin! I was a fraction panicky as I desperately did not want to fall over. I held onto the back-fat of the Spaniard in front of me as the crowd grew closer and closer and more and more frenzied. Jumping, pushing, screaming, as it drew closer to midday. San Fermin! San Fermin! People emerged onto the balcony of the main building and the crowd settled slightly - awaiting the cannon to be fired and the start of the festival. And...boom! San Fermin! Everyone pumped their red neckerchiefs in the air and tied it around their necks. Jumping, dancing, screaming, sangria, white, red, pink.

After the boom, the crowd dispersed slightly and I spotted Robbie in the crowd. I pushed my way over to him and found the rest of the group. We continued to drink sangria and pour sangria and slowly made our way out of the fray which had begun to thin (but only slightly, just enough to move). The whole experience was completely crazy.

We tried to go to the main square but ended up in a smaller, more family friendly square. We stopped here for a while to catch our breath and exclaim how incredible that all just was and admire our sangria stains. A band marched past us, followed by one of the coolest drumming bands I have ever heard.  Sidetracked, we stopped and danced for a while as the drummers, enormous smiles on their faces, drummed in unison incredibly catchy beats. I wish I knew what they were playing so I could find that music again. It brought such happiness! The drummers continued on and we made our way to the main square.

It was like herding cats - there was 14 of us, an enormous crowd to battle through, and people stopping along the way. The streets were soaked with sangria and cider and piss and basically miscellaneous liquids as the cleaners used high pressure hoses to just wash it all away...

In the main square, we needed 3 things; 1) more sangria, 2) bathrooms and 3) food (not necessarily in that order). We had some tapas and other food, waiting in line for the toilet for about half an hour and then some of us caught the coach back to the campsite because we were bushed.

What a mental day. After a while back at the camp, I mustered the energy for a shower - one of the sweetest showers I have ever had in my life, albeit lukewarm-to-cold and having to press for water every 15 seconds. Ahh, the stink of clean. We continued partying and eating and drinking and went to bed rather early - it was going to be a difficult 5am start the next day so we could secure good places for the first Running of the Bulls.

To be continued.

Lake at the campsite
1.5L sangria for breakfast, opening ceremony of San Fermin
Before: shiny white and clean
After! 
The houses lining the town square 
Sea of white (and slightly pinkish)